The brown dust road stretched out in both directions with no sign of life or habitation save the droppings of countless sheep and goats. Now rising, then falling, it ran with scarcely a bend across the arid terrain between the darker, russet brown of the hills. Fifteen or twenty parasangs on, it would lead into the passes of the High Zagros, ancient roads, travelled by the Kings, that linked the desert on the east with Baghdad and the Fertile Crescent on the west.
Hassan had never been this far south. In the three days since leaving Doquz’s main party, his six arbans had ridden along river beds, across stony moorland and through mud villages, hoping to come upon traces of a recent battle, or evidence that armies had passed that way. There was nothing. Apart from the hospitable villagers, many of them followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who had given them food and allowed them to draw water, the only human beings they had encountered were a tribe of brown-skinned nomads. The former had heard rumours of war but seemed untouched by it while the latter, though friendly, to judge by their expressive faces, spoke no language that Hassan had ever heard.
The place where they had halted was the highest point of the road. Alongside on their left ran the dried-up bed of a cay, one of the lesser streams that, following rains, fed a greater river. The mountain peaks in the distance were almost completely obscured by a blue haze. On their right was a rocky slope, broken here and there by patches of colour – wild flowers that against all expectation seemed to thrive in the baked earth.
Hassan was becoming accustomed to his role as captain. His boldness in requesting the commission having evaporated, he feared he might be resented on account of his youth and inexperience, but he had discovered that the corporals and many of the men in the command were no older than he. Indeed, it proved to be the case that Sayyid, at nineteen, was one of the oldest in the company. Far from resenting him, it appeared that his followers for some unaccountable reason welcomed his leadership, and thus his confidence had grown.
As he shaded his eyes against the light, Sayyid drew rein beside him.
‘Well, Brother Hassan, what are to be our tactics now? The road is still empty. The hills still deserted. And we’re a long way from Tabriz, or anywhere else for that matter.’
‘We’ll go on to the next village or town,’ said Hassan, ‘or until we reach a post. There we can take our bearings. I’m not ready yet to acknowledge that Doquz was mistaken.’
‘Nor I,’ said Sayyid. ‘It’s either Tabriz or Baghdad, and I can’t believe that both Baidu and Nauruz have beaten us to the mountains. The Captain’s intuition has served the Tigers well until now. I never thought when I joined her to see such adventures.’
‘What will you do when the war is over,’ Hassan asked, ‘… go back to your uncle?’
‘There is a poor living in candles, Hassan, and I’m not cut out for trade,’ said Sayyid. ‘Old Mohammed is a decent, pious man, but it was largely to escape him that I became a bandit.’
‘He told me there was a woman involved.’ Hassan smiled.
‘There was some truth in that … to begin with. You know her, Hassan. She is Talitha, who took the Qazvin citadel with us. I met her and another in the Tabriz bazaar and we talked …’
‘As we ride, you can tell me about it,’ said Hassan. He turned to wave his command on, then spurred his own pony forward. ‘Though I have heard Ali’s story – and Mujir’s – and learned a little about Fatima from Doquz herself, I know almost nothing about the others.’
‘My own story is simple,’ Sayyid said. ‘I have not suffered like Fatima or Ali, but I’ve seen the depravity of the men who rule us. Persian and Mongol! Husbands are conscripted by force; wives disappear and do not return. Artists like my uncle are taxed so hard that their business dwindles to nothing. Oppression! There has to be something better than that, Hassan, in this world.’
‘I think it was always there, Sayyid, though I did not see it. Not as bad as now maybe, but bad enough.’
‘It was of these things that I talked with Talitha,’ Sayyid said. ‘I must have an honest face for afterwards she took me to Commander Sabbah. Thus I was recruited.
‘Talitha’s own story is more tragic. The Captain purchased her in a slave market outside Van and made her free. She had served two masters and both had abused her. Her birthplace was to the west of Erzurum. There is a trade in children in these Turkish lands, Hassan. Brigands steal them from their mothers’ knee and sell them for profit. So Commander Sabbah discovered. It has lasted since the time of the Christian Wars.’
‘I have heard of such things,’ said Hassan, recalling Osman’s tale of the kidnapped children. ‘Yes, I know now that slavery and oppression are real and I had to travel to Christian lands and return in order to realise it. But I feel sure Ghazan will bring a new freedom to Persia.’
Sayyid grimaced. ‘I pray you’re right, for if he does not I think I will fight on. Then, perhaps, I will go to Anatolia with Talitha … if she’ll have me!’
They had reached a bend in the road that had been invisible from the recent summit and here their conversation was interrupted. A winter storm, or maybe a tremor, had eroded the ground. Sand, rocks and scree had fallen into the cay, which now ran some distance below them. In front of them was a chasm more than twenty paces across and five deep. To cross it with the ponies was impossible. They would have to reverse their tracks and seek an alternative route.
Hassan was about to turn his command round when he noticed a goat track winding up the hill to their right. If they could travel along the crest they might find another way down that would not risk the ponies’ legs. The path was wide enough at the base for single file, but lest it peter out, he sent a corporal and two troopers to investigate. The three, leading their animals, reached the top and disappeared from view. There was a long silence, then a cry of excitement from beyond the hill.
Hassan dismounted and scrambled up the slope by the steepest route. Looking east, he could see much further than before. The depression formed by the cay veered off into the middle distance until it was lost in the undulating country below. Beyond the next major fold in the hills lay a broad valley and, winding its way across the arid brown land from north to south, was a river.
‘Look, Captain!’ The corporal raised his arm and pointed. On the eastern side of the river, and approaching a narrowing of its waters, was a party of some fifty riders. They rode fast, churning up clouds of dust that billowed in their wake. About half a parasang behind, and coming out of the hills on the far side, was a much larger body of men and horses.
Sayyid joined Hassan on the ridge. ‘Baidu?’ he enquired.
‘I don’t know. They are certainly heading this way and are in a hurry.’
‘And Nauruz following?’
‘Too few in my opinion. More likely it’s Baidu’s Chagatai regiment.’
‘In that case,’ remarked Sayyid, ‘if it’s Baidu himself in front we can take him and be half way to Tabriz before his followers can reach the river. We are closer to him by far than they.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Hassan measuring the distance with his eye, ‘but the ground is also flat on this side of the river. I’m of a mind not to risk lives in a contest whose outcome is uncertain. We’ll follow the cay and climb that next crest. Stay down and wait.’
They descended again to the road and he led his arbans down into the furrow on the opposite side. By the time they had climbed the next summit and had taken cover behind rocks and scrub, the unidentified riders had reached the river and one of their number was testing its depth. Satisfied that it was fordable, one by one the men urged their mounts into the water. The river, reduced to its lowest level in the summer heat, came no higher than the horses’ withers, and it took the whole party only a few minutes to cross.
Hassan could see them quite plainly now. None carried a standard, however several were distinguishable by their black jerkins and shaven heads. He counted. There were fifty-seven altogether, only five fewer than his own force, and thirty-three were Chagatai bowmen. The others must have been part of a heavy cavalry regiment for, although their horses were unprotected, probably in the interests of greater speed, they were helmeted and wore metal armour over which were tied red and black tabards. He could also see that the second force to their rear carried those same colours, borne by two horsemen in its van.
‘They are Baidu’s men without doubt,’ exclaimed Hassan, ‘but the foremost are scouts only, sent ahead to find the safest road. The Il-khan’ is likely to be with the main force.’
‘Then he is already trapped,’ said the first arban leader excitedly. ‘For he is pursued! He has no time to cross the river before they close the gap.’
‘He’s right, Hassan,’ Sayyid said. ‘Look … to the north east … between the rounded hill and the sharp peak to its left! That could be Nauruz.’
Across the plain was streaming a third group of horsemen. Hassan estimated they were at least two regiments strong. Baidu’s men saw their predicament. They broke in the centre, fanned out into two wings and prepared to give battle. The two standard bearers flanking a third man of no exceptional stature but wearing a huge eagle plume in his helmet detached themselves and galloped for the river.
‘And Baidu!’ said Hassan. ‘Doquz knows him too well. Now he makes his bid for freedom! I have a mind to deny our allies their glory.’ He turned to the corporals. ‘I need your best archers to bring down these Chagatai scouts as soon as they are within range. We need to surprise them. Four troops should do. Use the cover of the rocks and do not fight them in the open. Can it be done?’
‘Yes, Captain. And the others?’
‘We spare them if they surrender. You understand?’
‘Then two arbans are with me … and you, Sayyid. We take the Il-khan as he comes out of the water.’
The two armies on the plain met and engaged. They were too close together for prolonged exchange of arrows and a furious hand to hand battle ensued. Baidu’s regiment put up a spirited fight, though the outcome was little in doubt. The other force was much the superior in numbers, armour and weaponry.
Hassan had no time to watch the end. The scouts were half way between river and hillock and Baidu was already in the water when he gave the order to attack. He led Sayyid and his arbans forward down the slope, eleven to the left and ten to the right, leaving space between for the forty archers to aim and discharge their arrows. Twenty-six Chagatai died in the first volley before they could draw their bows. Four swordsmen were also hit. Hassan shot another two Chagatai at the gallop and felled a third with his scimitar as he passed their line. The remainder of the scouting party, four surviving Chagatai and twenty cavalrymen, seeing an enemy to both front and rear, drew their sabres and prepared to fight their way out, whereupon the bowmen on the hillside launched a second volley of arrows, less well aimed, and brought down ten. The survivors dropped their weapons on the sand and held their arms in the air as a token of surrender.
Baidu was floundering. His two henchmen had abandoned him midstream, turned back and were now fleeing south. Undecided between the ambush ahead and the losing battle behind, and looking for a way of escape, the Il-khan had been carried into a deeper part of the river. Separated from his panicked horse, and obliged to swim, he was making for the nearer, western, side. His mount, unable to maintain a foothold in the steep, muddy bank, was swept away by the current. Baidu scrambled ashore, bareheaded and drenched to the skin.
Hassan dismounted. He pulled his helmet well down over his brow, adjusted its chinstrap to hide his features, and stood over his enemy, scimitar in hand.
‘Get up and throw your weapons in the river,’ he said. ‘You are our prisoner!’
[to be continued]